Moral ideas govern the world. They shape and transform events in society in the long run. But if ideas are the rulers of the world, then information technology is their handmaiden. In this article I will look at how various information technologies have enabled the spreading of ideas on different scales, and how that has affected the power balance.
Before the written word all information had to be spread orally, and this put a natural limitation on how large a kingdom could become. In oral traditions, where everyone has equal access to the language, it is very hard to maintain a large scale society, and major power structures.
With the invention of writing the size of a kingdom could also increase because it was possible to transmit information more reliable at a greater distance. In the middle ages, feudal lords often sent their decrees on written parchments secured by the royal seal so as to prevent forgery.
Writing was not for everyone. Only a few could read and write, and to create paper and have something written on it was a laborious process. Only the rich and powerful could therefore afford to maintain the infrastructure of information technology. To make matters worse the power elite even had their own language that no-one other than the learned could speak. (Latin in feudal Europe, Mandarin in feudal China)
This placed clear limitations of whose ideas would dominate. In feudal Europe there were two power houses that each mastered the science of writing, and that was the churh and the king. Let me illustrate this with a rather mundane example: the Vikings.
These nordic raiders were probably no better or no worse than other Europeans hordes at the time, but what secured their place in history was the fact that they chose to raid victims that had the ability to write about it and document it for the future: monks in Christian monestaries.
According to some historians the Vikings were not raiders at all, but were simply retaliating Christian invasions and massacres in Scandiavia. However, this side of the story was never told because the Vikings did not master information technology to document and spread their version of history. Therefore the official doctrine that history has passed down to the future is that the Christians were victims and the Vikings were villains. That’s the power of information technology in action.
The power of balance shifted dramatically with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century. It is no coincidence that the renaissance and the enlightenment coincided with the printing press, for with it came the possibility of mass dissemination of ideas. Printing was so cheap that books became available to a much larger audience. With this the balance of power over ideas was also greatly shifted.
It was the printing press that enabled Martin Luther to topple the religious monopoly of the Catholic Church in Europe. Newton used it to spread his Principia Mathematica and thereby enlighten a large audience on the mathematical principles that govern the physical world. And in the American colonies John Locke’s “Treatise on Civil Government” could be found in every respectable library.
With the printing press it became increasingly difficult for the king and pope to control information and it set the stage for new ideas and for their rapid spreading.
But soon a new and powerful means of controlling ideas emerged: public education. By forcing people to go to public schools the king and his henchmen was able to once more control the masses, for it is a dirty secret that whatever a person is indoctrinated with during his tender formative years of childhood will tend to repeal any contradicting information in adulthood. Or put bluntly, he is brainwashed.
Brainwashing has the fantastic effect of negating the freedom of information created by the printing press. With a proper public education a person can stare the truth in the eyes and still not see it. Today public education is no doubt the single most powerful tool for spreading ideas, and politicians and intellectuals use it rabidly to impose their understanding of the world on the masses.
By extraordinary coincidence radio, film and television became commonly available at just the time the Nazis came to power in Germany. They used a combination of public education (Hitler Jugend) and these new broadcasting media to dazzle and enchant an entire population, and for a brief moment in time governments gained a power not unlike the popes and the feudal lords that controlled writing.
But during the dark 20th century emerged a new information technology which spurred a silent revolution which we are only at the very beginning of: the internet. It promises to become the modern version of the printing press, a balancer of information power.
Let’s consider the new possibilities that has opened up. Today it is possible to spread information to millions of people across the globe in milliseconds and at practically zero cost. And whereas ordinary TV and radio broadcasting is a one way street for information controlled by a few media houses, anyone can start a blog, vlog, radio or newspaper on the internet at virtually no cost. On the internet information is spread more symmetrically which allows for a much more diverse idea universe.
And whereas previously broadcasting occurred through well-defined TV and radio channels the dissemination of information now to an ever larger degree through social media. Chances are that you read this article because you saw it recommended by someone you know on Facebook or Twitter. That’s a new and distributed form of information power which is fundamentally different from the top down approach of public education and classical media.
Currently we have not seen that new power structure emerge in its full glory, and we may not do so in a long time, but we have already seen a few glimpses of what is to come: when the European revolution of 1848 was set in motion it was a highly disorganized and uncoordinated event that occurred sporadically in central Europe. Because it was so disorganized the revolution was quelched, but look at what happened in the Middle East recently. Using Twitter, Facebook and other social media Arab youth coordinated their protests and was able to use it to topple no less than three dictators so far.
Britain recently saw major riots and plundering, and here too the events were coordinated through crowd sourcing. This is only small hints of what the future might bring. Sometimes these may be destructive events like the one in Britain, and sometimes they may hold the potential for something better like the events we are seeing in the Middle East.
But in any case it will reshape the world. Old power structures will vanish and will be replaced by new ones. By the time this silent information revolution has run its course the world we live in will be a completely different one.